The rebuilding Bulls continue to search for windows to contend, and one slammed in their face last Tuesday when they failed to move up in the NBA Draft Lottery and a chance to draft Duke’s Zion Williamson. Lost in the chaos of that evening – three teams moved up, pushing the Bulls back to No. 7 – was the reality that every effort and decision the front office and coaching staff makes should be geared toward looking for that next window.
And that next opportunity to begin building a contender in the LeBron James-less Eastern Conference will open back up in the summer of 2021.
VP John Paxson said all the right things in the wake of the team dealing for Otto Porter Jr. in February, that the two-way wing would fill a need, bring veteran leadership to a terribly inexperienced locker room and give the Bulls a talented player for the next two-plus seasons. The Bulls did their free agent bidding four months early, knowing that the Kyries, the Durants and the Leonards of the world weren’t going to join a team that eventually won 22 games a year after going 27-55.
But Porter also lined up perfectly with that all-important timeline. He’ll make more than $55 million the next two seasons, which is fine considering the Bulls weren’t going to be players in free agency until then. The Bulls will get to see what it’s like to play with a talented perimeter small forward, and core pieces in Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen can only get better with him in the lineup.
He’ll also be a free agent in July 2021. That’s the same time Cristiano Felicio’s four-year, $32 million deal runs out – yes, it’s tough to see the Bulls being able to move his contract at any point before then. Our own Kevin Anderson, renowned Bulls capologist, crunched some numbers on what the Bulls’ salary cap could look like on July 1, 2021.
A few things to point out before getting to the chart. The NBA hasn’t projected a salary cap for 2021 so we factored in an increase of $4 million, putting the estimated cap at $120 million. The Bulls will draft seventh in 2019, and for this hypothetical scenario included draft picks in 2020 (15th) and 2021 (20th) to their cap. Don’t get bogged down in the numbers or the slots the Bulls are picking. They’re just fillers. Including cap hits, the Bulls could have $63 million heading into free agency in 2021.
We’ll let you Google the names of unrestricted free agents in 2021 – and, yes, they’re pretty big names – but the point here is that the Bulls will have a much more enticing offer for prospective free agents when that summer rolls around. The current state of the roster doesn’t scream “come join us!” But by the time the Bulls sit down at the table of a tier one free agent in 2021, they’ll have:
- a 23-year-old Lauri Markkanen entering his fifth NBA season
- a 25-year-old Zach LaVine entering his eighth NBA season
- a 22-year-old Wendell Carter entering his fourth NBA season
- Lottery picks from 2019, 2020 and potentially 2021
They’ll have guys like Chandler Hutchison and perhaps a few holdovers from the current roster, but the above is the core that could entice a max player to, at the very least, consider Chicago.
The key for the Bulls over the next two seasons is to protect as much cap space as possible and add veterans that can help this young core grow. Three- and four-year deals should be off the table unless the Bulls are positive that player can be part of the next wave. Stopgaps are nice on paper and fill short-term needs, but the Bulls need to be looking long-term in every move they make. If a free agent deal signed the next two offseasons is going to spill into 2022 or later, it had better be a significant piece. That seems unlikely to happen, meaning the Bulls should target one- and two-year deals. Again, it's not what you want to hear but it's what needs to happen.
In terms of veterans, think Brooklyn signing Ed Davis, Philadelphia signing Amir Johnson and Atlanta signing Vince Carter (and the Kings doing so the previous year). None of those acquisitions produced much as far as on-court numbers were concerned, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any young talent on those teams who aren’t happy to have had them in the locker room.
It’s not a direct comparison, but the Bulls could follow the Brooklyn Nets’ model to get there. Brooklyn unearthed talent in players like Caris LeVert (20th overall), Jarrett Allen (22nd overall), Spencer Dinwiddie (G-League) and Joe Harris (two years, $16 million). That Nets team also took on the salaries of DeMarre Carroll and Kenneth Faried at a time when they weren’t contending to acquire draft assets that turned into significant pieces; the Nets took Rodions Kurucs with the second round pick included in the Faried deal, and they’ll have the 27th overall pick in this year’s draft thanks to the Faried deal.
The Nets also found their All-Star in D’Angelo Russell after acquiring him from the Lakers. Again, it’s not a perfect comparison, but LaVine could be the Russell of the Nets’ rebuild. Brooklyn went from 20 wins to 28 wins to 42 wins in large part because of his play. Russell could be on the way out if the Nets want to be in play for a max player – think Irving or Durant – this offseason, but if he yielded them a winning team that free agents are now interested in when they wouldn’t have been two years ago, that trade was a success for Brooklyn (they could also unload Allen Crabbe’s $18.5 million salary to be in play for two max players, and past assets to attach to that potential trade make it possible).
The Bulls should be looking for similar plays. They need to improve in the short-term but can do so in a way that leads to 2021. It’s not what fans want to hear after 27- and 22-win seasons, but short-term solutions make you a 41-win Pistons team without much real hope to actually contend.
The Bulls have identified three core players in Markkanen, LaVine and Carter, in addition to the draft picks they’ll have over the next three classes before free agency begins in 2021. Every move from them until now should be with that in mind, when the window opens next.